Pope Francis’ call for the decriminalisation of homosexuality is another step in his pontificate’s reframing of the Church’s pastoral approach to gay and lesbian Catholics.
Francis is the first Pope officially to support the repeal of laws that persecute LGBTQ people, and wants bishops in countries where homosexuality is illegal to do the same.
The timing of his remarks is significant given they were made in an interview with Associated Press released less than a week before the 86-year-old Pope travels to Africa, a continent where anti-gay laws are common.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 67 countries criminalise consensual same-sex relations, most of them in Africa and the Middle East.
Some bishops in these countries have supported anti-gay laws, while others have spoken out against them.
Francis now wants a consistent approach saying Church leaders need a “process of conversion” and to remember the “tenderness” God has for each person.
While the Pope was clear about decriminalisation, his remarks in the interview about homosexuality being a sin have been misinterpreted in certain parts of the English-speaking world.
As sometimes happens when Francis speaks or gives interviews when talking about homosexuality, Pope imagines a dialogue.
“Being homosexual is not a crime. It is not a crime,” he says. “Yes, but it is a sin. Well, first let us distinguish sin from crime. But it is also a sin the lack of charity with the neighbour, and how are you doing [on that one]?”
Some have suggested that the Pope is saying that being homosexual is sinful.
However, Fr James Alison, a theologian and fluent Spanish speaker, says the line “but it is a sin” is placed by the Pope in the mouth of an imagined objector.
In the interview, which was conducted in Spanish, Francis also says that homosexuality is part of the “human condition” and that “God loves us as we are.”
Fr Alison, known for his work on LGBTQ questions, describes the claim that the Pope has called homosexuality a sin as “false” and one which would contradict the official Church teaching that the homosexual inclination is not in itself a sin.
In 2019, Fr Alison explained how he had received a phone call from the Pope giving him the go-ahead to continue with his work, despite the priest and author facing attempts to have him laicised.
What Francis’ comments once again show is the slow, yet steady, shift taking place inside the Church on LGBTQ Catholics, something which was kick-started almost ten years ago when Francis said, “Who am I to judge?”
His appeal for decriminalisation shows the Pope is not simply uttering nice words about gay people but is ready to use his moral authority to insist they receive legal protections.
The Church teaches that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. Francis has not changed teaching in this regard nor signalled that he will.
In 2021 he signed off on a Vatican ruling forbidding same-sex blessings (although he later distanced himself from the language in the document).
But it is significant that when the Pope talked about whether homosexual behaviour is a sin, he stressed that it is also a sin to lack charity to your neighbour.
In other words: stop singling out gay people.
Furthermore, the Pope’s statement of fact that homosexuality is part of the “human condition” could also open the door to a revision of the Church’s catechism where the homosexual “inclination” is described as “objectively disordered”.
Some have suggested that this could be changed to “differently ordered” to make it clear that same-sex orientation is not in itself sinful, while German Cardinal Reinhard Marx says the wording of the catechism in this area is “not set in stone” and could be changed.
The bigger question is whether the “sociological-scientific foundation” on which Church teaching is based on is still correct, as Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich has remarked.
While Francis has not formally shifted official Church teaching on homosexuality, he has changed the conversation and the approach.
The Jesuit Pope has placed emphasis on the section of the catechism, which states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided”.
He has pledged his support for same-sex civil unions, effectively overturning a 2003 Vatican document which said it was “necessary to oppose legal recognition of homosexual unions”, and has moved away from the harsh and condemnatory language used by the Vatican in the past.
Francis has also given his backing to Sister Jeannine Gramick, one of the founders of New Ways Ministry, a US-based support group for LGBTQ Catholics, and has praised Fr James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, for his ministry to gay people.
Fr Martin has experienced a torrent of unpleasant comments on social media, including death threats, for his work in this area.
When it comes to LGBTQ Catholics, the temptation is to exclude or reject, but Francis is showing this is the very opposite of what it means to be Catholic, which by definition means universal and all-embracing.
Throughout his almost ten-year pontificate, the Pope has sought to root his approach to gay people in both the nature of God and the words of Jesus.